Endlessly imaginative and whimsical, Bay Street Theater’s production of The Man in the Ceiling is pure theatrical joy. Adapted from Jules Feiffer’s book of the same name, The Man in the Ceiling is often funny, sometimes sad, but always hopeful, and it will tug at the heartstrings of even the most jaded of theatergoers.
The Man in the Ceiling tells the story of Jimmy Jibbett (Jonah Broscow), a boy who would rather spend his days drawing comics than playing baseball with his disapproving dad (known only as Father, played by Danny Binstock). Jimmy instead looks up to Uncle Lester (Andrew Lippa, who also wrote the music and lyrics), a struggling musical theater writer who’s having trouble writing a love song to present to potential investors for his new show. Mother (Nicole Parker) is always on the phone with her assistant from work, and big sister Lisi (Erin Kommor) is constantly bossing Jimmy around and demanding he draw a portrait of her. Jimmy wants to be friends with the big kid next door, Charlie Beemer (Brett Gray), but Charlie is more interested in having Jimmy draw his ideas and not giving him any credit. As Jimmy feels more and more pressure to get better grades and to give up his comics, he begins to imagine a mysterious hero known only as The Man in the Ceiling, who may well be the key to solving Jimmy’s troubles.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with nary a false note to be found. Broscow and Lippa, who carry much of the emotional weight of the piece, are standouts. Lippa nails the occasionally neurotic Uncle Lester with great comic timing, and his quieter moments with Broscow are warm and sweet. Binstock takes what could be a largely unsympathetic character and gives Father multiple layers, especially in the second act, where the humor gives way to a bit more seriousness (without ever forgetting the fun).
A standout moment for the entire cast is “You Are the Friend,” Uncle Lester’s love song, hilariously choreographed by Spencer Liff, with lyrics that are both silly and poignant. We may know how Uncle Lester’s potential investors will feel about his crazy song, but the “play within a play” is one of the show’s best numbers.
Director Jeffrey Seller’s colorful vision of The Man in the Ceiling makes for one memorable moment after another. The ingenious set by David Korins incorporates art projections by Feiffer and leaves a lot to the imagination, which fits in well with the theme of the show. The puppets designed by Rick Lyon are cleverly constructed, with the huge Man in the Ceiling requiring most of the cast to operate it.
What makes The Man in the Ceiling feel so special is that the whole production feels like a love letter to Feiffer. The story may not be entirely autobiographical, but it certainly feels “drawn” from Feiffer’s experience as an artist and writer. Feiffer, one of the great living talents of our day, lends his iconic and unique artistic voice to every ounce of The Man in the Ceiling.
Bay Street’s season is off to a strong start. If the remaining productions can deliver even a fraction of the joy present onstage during The Man in the Ceiling, audiences are in for quite a summer of theater.
The Man in the Ceiling plays at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, through June 25. For tickets and more information, call 631-725-9500 and visit baystreet.org.